ON THE DARK AUTUMN Sunday of November 10, 1918, Adolf Hitler experienced what out of the depths of his hatred and frustration he called the greatest villainy of the century.* A pastor had come bearing unbelievable news for the wounded soldiers in the military hospital at Pasewalk, a small Pomeranian town northeast of Berlin, where Hitler was recovering from temporary blindness suffered in a British gas attack a month before near Ypres.
That Sunday morning, the pastor informed them, the Kaiser had abdicated and fled to Holland. The day before a republic had been proclaimed in Berlin. On the morrow, November 11, an armistice would be signed at Compiègne in France. The war had been lost. Germany was at the mercy of the victorious Allies. The pastor began to sob.
“I could stand it no longer,” Hitler says in recounting the scene. “Everything went black again before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the ward, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow … So it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations; … in vain the hours in which, with mortal fear clutching at our hearts, we nevertheless did our duty; in vain the death of two millions who died … Had they died for this? … Did all this happen only so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the Fatherland?”1
For the first time since he had stood at his mother’s grave, he says, he broke down and wept. “I could not help it.” Like millions of his fellow countrymen then and forever after, he could not accept the blunt and shattering fact that Germany had been defeated on the battlefield and had lost the war.
Like millions of other Germans, too, Hitler had been a brave and courageous soldier. Later he would be accused by some political opponents of having been a coward in combat, but it must be said, in fairness, that there is no shred of evidence in his record for such a charge. As a dispatch runner in the First Company of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, he arrived at the front toward the end of October 1914 after scarcely three months of training, and his unit was decimated in four days of hard fighting at the first Battle of Ypres, where the British halted the German drive to the Channel. According to a letter Hitler wrote his Munich landlord, a tailor named Popp, his regiment was reduced in four days of combat from 3,500 to 600 men; only thirty officers survived, and four companies had to be dissolved.
During the war he was wounded twice, the first time on October 7, 1916, in the Battle of the Somme, when he was hit in the leg. After hospitalization in Germany he returned to the List Regiment—it was named after its original commander—in March 1917 and, now promoted to corporal, fought in the Battle of Arras and the third Battle of Ypres during that summer. His regiment was in the thick of the fighting during the last all-out German offensive in the spring and summer of 1918. On the night of October 13 he was caught in a heavy British gas attack on a hill south of Werwick during the last Battle of Ypres. “I stumbled back with burning eyes,” he relates, “taking with me my last report of the war. A few hours later, my eyes had turned into glowing coals; it had grown dark around me.”2
He was twice decorated for bravery. In December 1914 he was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, and in August 1918 he received the Iron Cross, First Class, which was rarely given to a common soldier in the old Imperial Army. One comrade in his unit testified that he won the coveted decoration for having captured fifteen Englishmen single-handed; another said it was Frenchmen. The official history of the List Regiment contains no word of any such exploit; it is silent about the individual feats of many members who received decorations. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that Corporal Hitler earned the Iron Cross, First Class. He wore it proudly to the end of his life.
And yet, as soldiers go, he was a peculiar fellow, as more than one of his comrades remarked. No letters or presents from home came to him, as they did to the others. He never asked for leave; he had not even a combat soldier’s interest in women. He never grumbled, as did the bravest of men, about the filth, the lice, the mud, the stench, of the front line. He was the impassioned warrior, deadly serious at all times about the war’s aims and Germany’s manifest destiny.
“We all cursed him and found him intolerable,” one of the men in his company later recalled. “There was this white crow among us that didn’t go along with us when we damned the war to hell.”3 Another man described him as sitting “in the corner of our mess holding his head between his hands, in deep contemplation. Suddenly he would leap up and, running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy.”4 Whereupon he would launch into a vitriolic attack on these “invisible foes”—the Jews and the Marxists. Had he not learned in Vienna that they were the source of all evil?
And indeed had he not seen this for himself in the German homeland while convalescing from his leg wound in the middle of the war? After his discharge from the hospital at Beelitz, near Berlin, he had visited the capital and then gone on to Munich. Everywhere he found “scoundrels” cursing the war and wishing for its quick end. Slackers abounded, and who were they but Jews? “The offices,” he found, “were filled with Jews. Nearly every clerk was a Jew and nearly every Jew was a clerk … In the year 1916–17 nearly the whole production was under control of Jewish finance … The Jew robbed the whole nation and pressed it beneath his domination … I saw with horror a catastrophe approaching …”5 Hitler could not bear what he saw and was glad, he says, to return to the front.
He could bear even less the disaster which befell his beloved Fatherland in November 1918. To him, as to almost all Germans, it was “monstrous” and undeserved. The German Army had not been defeated in the field. It had been stabbed in the back by the traitors at home.
Thus emerged for Hitler, as for so many Germans, a fanatical belief in the legend of the “stab in the back” which, more than anything else, was to undermine the Weimar Republic and pave the way for Hitler’s ultimate triumph. The legend was fraudulent. General Ludendorff, the actual leader of the High Command, had insisted on September 28, 1918, on an armistice “at once,” and his nominal superior, Field Marshal von Hindenburg, had supported him. At a meeting of the Crown Council in Berlin on October 2 presided over by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hindenburg had reiterated the High Command’s demand for an immediate truce. “The Army,” he said, “cannot wait forty-eight hours.” In a letter written on the same day Hindenburg flatly stated that the military situation made it imperative “to stop the fighting.” No mention was made of any “stab in the back.” Only later did Germany’s great war hero subscribe to the myth. In a hearing before the Committee of Inquiry of the National Assembly on November 18, 1919, a year after the war’s end, Hindenburg declared, “As an English general has very truly said, the German Army was ‘stabbed in the back.’”*
In point of fact, the civilian government headed by Prince Max of Baden, which had not been told of the worsening military situation by the High Command until the end of September, held out for several weeks against Ludendorff’s demand for an armistice.
One had to live in Germany between the wars to realize how widespread was the acceptance of this incredible legend by the German people. The facts which exposed its deceit lay all around. The Germans of the Right would not face them. The culprits, they never ceased to bellow, were the “November criminals”—an expression which Hitler hammered into the consciousness of the people. It mattered not at all that the German Army, shrewdly and cowardly, had maneuvered the republican government into signing the armistice which the military leaders had insisted upon, and that it thereafter had advised the government to accept the Peace Treaty of Versailles. Nor did it seem to count that the Social Democratic Party had accepted power in 1918 only reluctantly and only to preserve the nation from utter chaos which threatened to lead to Bolshevism. It was not responsible for the German collapse. The blame for that rested on the old order, which had held the power.* But millions of Germans refused to concede this. They had, to find scapegoats for the defeat and for their humiliation and misery. They easily convinced themselves that they had found them in the “November criminals” who had signed the surrender and established democratic government in the place of the old autocracy. The gullibility of the Germans is a subject which Hitler often harps on in Mein Kampf. He was shortly to take full advantage of it.
When the pastor had left the hospital in Pasewalk that evening of November 10, 1918, “there followed terrible days and even worse nights” for Adolf Hitler. “I knew,” he says, “that all was lost. Only fools, liars and criminals could hope for mercy from the enemy. In these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed … Miserable and degenerate criminals! The more I tried to achieve clarity on the monstrous event in this hour, the more the shame of indignation and disgrace burned my brow. What was all the pain in my eyes compared to this misery?”
And then: “My own fate became known to me. I decided to go into politics.”6
As it turned out, this was a fateful decision for Hitler and for the world.